Wednesday, January 6, 2010

For Starters. . .

by Libby Malin

Over the holiday, my husband and I treated ourselves to a re-viewing of the movie Star Trek. We'd seen it in the theater and loved it, and I wanted to judge whether it still held up on the small screen. It did, and then some. If anything, more intimate moments popped more for me on our modest-sized Toshiba.

One of the pleasures of watching a DVD, rather than the theatrical version, is clicking your way through to the "extra features." So we did, finding the "commentary" and watching a bit of the movie all over again while listening to the director and others offer insights into the action.

And here was a surprise -- the director had originally thought of opening the movie with the birth of Mr. Spock, instead of the action-packed moments leading up to Kirk's father's death. As Spock himself would say, this discussion of alternate beginnings was "fascinating."

If the movie had started with Spock's birth, it would have added a scene of "backstory" to the four or five already in place, delaying the arrival of the real meat of the story-- the world-threatening battle that fed Spock and Kirk's initial antipathy and ultimate friendship. The directors opted for a telescoped-in backstory, reasoning that viewers learn of Spock's human lineage in another early scene involving his earth-born mother. So they did what is so hard for artists to do -- they cut their own work.

But this discussion of how to start a story reminded me how difficult it is for any storyteller to decide just where to open the curtain for the reader/viewer.

Most of the time, I can just. . . start. The seeds of a story swirl in my head. I hear a snatch of dialogue, or glimpse part of a scene, and bingo-bango, I'm at the computer writing.

Occasionally, though, I struggle. I write an opening, then go back and write another. I re-read and jettison everything, trying again with yet another Act I. I have debates with myself about what will grab the reader (or acquiring editor!) versus what needs to be told to set the stage for what's to come.

How many authors wrestle with openings? I suspect many do. Looking at some famous novels, it's impossible to tell, however, if what now seem like perfect starters presented inner struggles for their writers.

In fact, it's interesting to note just how little of what is to come is given away in the first lines of some well-known books.

Here's a quick quiz on book beginnings that might be a fun post-holiday exercise! Below, you'll find first lines from several books. Can you guess what novels they belong to? (And do you wonder if the authors debated if they were launching their stories with the right lines?) Answers are at the end. . .

1. "He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees."

2. "We were studying when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy, not yet wearing a school uniform, and a monitor carrying a large desk."

3. "Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically."

4. "1801--I have just returned from a visit to my landlord--the solitary neighbor that I shall be troubled with."

5. "There was no possibility of taking a walk that day."

6. "In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since."

7. "In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains."

8. "To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth."

9. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

10. "Sometimes Anne Wyatt wished she could feed parts of her life into a shredder."

1. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway; 2. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert; 3. Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence; 4. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte; 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte; 6. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald; 7. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway; 8. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck; 9. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen; 10. Fire Me, Libby Malin (hey--I couldn't resist including my own book! LOL!)

How many did you get? (Confession--I might have guessed just three correctly myself if I'd not had the books in front of me.)


  1. Interesting about the crafting of the Star Trek movie.

    And wrestling with beginnings? SEALed With A Ring had three entirely different opening chapters--all of which changed the order in which I told the rest of the story.

  2. That's the difficult part of refashioning beginnings -- having to rearrange what comes after. It's like putting a puzzle together!

  3. I only guessed 3 toO (P&P, Jane Eyre, and The Great Gatsby)! This was a tough quiz and makes me feel quite inadequate as an English major :) Perhaps I should re-read the classics in 2010!

    A very interesting blog, though Libby! Insightful to the craft of writing a novel...

  4. Those are the three I would have gotten, too, Danielle, if I'd not had the books in front of me! I might have guessed the author on one or two more, but not the book itself.

  5. Well, I got 8,9,&10 without looking at the answers. I guess it's been too long since I last took an English lit class.
    I loved the Star Trek movie, too, and I know what it's like to struggle with beginnings. I once wrote a great opening line, but have since been unable to duplicate it. I guess that one was all I had in me.

  6. I loved Star Trek.

    I love writing beginnings. Sometimes they end up as deleted scenes, but that's fine since I always find a use for them.


  7. Great quiz, Libby! And I do wonder if authors struggled with beginnings as much as we do now...when that opening 'hook' and scene appear to be so vital to the industry now.

  8. Kathryne, I agree -- the book business is probably a lot different now than it was back "in the day." For example, the first third of Jane Eyre is all backstory -- Jane's Lowood School experiences. I don't know if an author could get away with that much backstory at the beginning of a novel now!

  9. Didn't get a single one right. Mainly b/c I haven't read a lot of them. Yeah, weird - I was in AP English all through high school and somehow managed to miss the majority. I did read Grapes of Wrath and The Great Gatsby. Both of which I've put out of my head. Although I do remember CRYING on Christmas Eve b/c I had to read Grapes. Talk about ruining my Christmas vacation!

  10. Fun post!

    I didn't do as great as I thought I would!lol But, I definitely got the P&P line. Who can forget that one?!

    I'm a fan of writing beginnings. I like the challenge in snaring attention. Keeps me motivated.

  11. GREAT post, Libby!

    And move over Cheryl, I got 8, 9 and 10 correct also. I knew a couple of those were Hemingway but didn't know which books. :-P

    Openings are always difficult for me! I usually have to try 3 or 4 times to get one that 'works.' But I remember reading that Margaret Mitchell rewrote the beginning of GWTW something like 30 times and was STILL not happy with it. Supposedly she had written yet another opening but the book had already gone to the printer. :-) I console myself with that when I'm struggling with my own beginning.

    I thought the new Star Trek was loads of fun with a real GRABBER opening! I also thought the casting of the main characters was superb.


  12. 0 for 0, well, at least I'm in good company....I did love your opening line, it reminded me too much of my life just this last year. Hoping for a better one this year.

    Star Trek is a great movie, I was a little taken back by the opening, I remember the original and kept thinking to myself, "That's not the way it happened!" Then I caught on...OK so I'm slow, but fun!;)

  13. I loved, loved, loved Star Trek. During the commentary, the directors said that the Spock actor (sorry, can't remember his name) made you completely forget Leonard Nimoy's interpretation, which was so true for me (nothing against Nimoy -- I adored him as well).

  14. Oh, I got to read more. I didn't get a single one right.

  15. Mason, I've read a bunch of them, and still wouldn't have pegged them right -- Madame Bovary in particular. It was fun to look at those beginnings, though, separate from the stories that came after.

  16. Just got an email from Danielle about your book release coming up in April. I signed up, can't wait to read it. Also told her I'd love host a guest post for you at Thoughts in Progress if possible when the book comes out.

  17. Thanks, Mason! I'd love to do it.

  18. Oh man, I loved the new Star Trek so much. That movie rocked every way from Sunday. I haven't taken the time to watch the commentaries and extras yet. Must do that. And I can't imagine it starting differently, but then I am sure JJ Abrams and crew could have made it work however they did it.

    Loved the quiz! I only knew one! How sad is that? Of course it was the opening line of P&P - go figure!

    So far my beginnings have popped into my head, as you said, and continue to feel perfect. I am sure a time will come when it is not so easy tho.

    Great post Libby! Except now I want to watch Star Trek - again - rather than write my blogs! LOL

  19. I got 3 of them. Beginnings are always so hard, I usually rewrite the first paragraph for the billionth time right before I send the book in.

    Great post, Libby!